America’s dams receive D grade in ASCE’s newest infrastructure report card

The saying might go that “C’s get degrees”, but D’s could spell disaster should the United States not seek to improve on the grade it received in the American Society of Civil Engineers most recent Infrastructure Report Card.

The report, released by ASCE every four years, assigns a letter grade to 16 different categories, including dams. ASCE’s grade for dams remained the same as it was in the 2013 report — a D — while America’s cumulative “GPA” also remained the same at a D+.

The lack of change in the letter grade belies a significant increase in the number of dams ASCE considers to be “high-hazard”, however, with the organization noting that number has climbed to almost 15,500 — up from 14,000 in its last report. Meanwhile, the amount needed to repair these high-hazard structures has increased from an estimated $21 billion to $45 billion.

“The average age of our nation’s dams is 56 years,” the report said. “By 2025, seven-out-of-10 dams in the United States will be over 50 years old. Fifty years ago dams were built with the best engineering and construction standards of the time. However, as the scientific and engineering data have improved, many dams are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large floods and earthquakes.”

Though the task is daunting, ASCE made a number of recommendations to help America raise its grade, including:

  • Funding the national dam rehabilitation and repair funding program to cost-share repairs to non-federal, high-hazard dams;
  • Developing emergency action plans for every high-hazard dam by 2021;
  • Implementing a national public awareness campaign to educate individuals to become more “dam aware”;
  • Encouraging incentives to state governments for providing sufficient resources and regulatory authorities for their own dam safety programs;
  • Requiring federal agencies that own, operate or regulate dams to meet the Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety; and
  • Encouraging improved land use planning at the local level.

“There are reasons for optimism because we’ve proposed some very real solutions,” ASCE president Norma Jean Mattei said. “So, the grade is bad, but the good news is we’ve got the [Trump] administration and members of Congress that ran on campaign promises of fixing infrastructure. It’s a priority.”

The state of America’s dam infrastructure was put in the national spotlight in February when a failure at California’s Oroville Dam threatened hundreds of thousands beneath the dam, causing a number of states to examine their own facilities.

ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is available in full here.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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